Separation of Church and State, huh?
Vitter earmarks funds for religious group
Nonprofit supports creationist education
Sunday, September 23, 2007
By Bill Walsh
WASHINGTON -- Sen. David Vitter, R-La., earmarked $100,000 in a spending bill for a Louisiana Christian group that has challenged the teaching of Darwinian evolution in the public school system and to which he has political ties.
The money is included in the labor, health and education financing bill for fiscal 2008 and specifies payment to the Louisiana Family Forum "to develop a plan to promote better science education."
The earmark appears to be the latest salvo in a decades-long battle over science education in Louisiana, in which some Christian groups have opposed the teaching of evolution and, more recently, have pushed to have it prominently labeled as a theory with other alternatives presented. Educators and others have decried the movement as a backdoor effort to inject religious teachings into the classroom.
The nonprofit Louisiana Family Forum, launched in Baton Rouge in 1999 by former state Rep. Tony Perkins, has in recent years taken the lead in promoting "origins science," which includes the possibility of divine intervention in the creation of the universe.
The group's stated mission is to "persuasively present biblical principles in the centers of influence on issues affecting the family through research, communication and networking." Until recently, its Web site contained a "battle plan to combat evolution," which called the theory a "dangerous" concept that "has no place in the classroom." The document was removed after a reporter's inquiry.
Vitter, Forum have ties
The group's tax-exempt status prohibits the Louisiana Family Forum from political activity, but Vitter has close ties to the group. Dan Richey, the group's grass-roots coordinator, was paid $17,250 as a consultant in Vitter's 2004 Senate race. Records also show that Vitter's campaign employed Beryl Amedée, the education resource council chairwoman for the Louisiana Family Forum.
The group has been an advocate for the senator, who was elected as a strong supporter of conservative social issues. When Vitter's use of a Washington, D.C., call-girl service drew comparisons last month to the arrest of Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, in what an undercover officer said was a solicitation for sex in an airport men's room, Family Forum Executive Director Gene Mills came to Vitter's defense.
In a video clip the group posted on the Internet site YouTube, Mills said the two senators' situations are far different. "Craig is denying the allegations," he said. "Vitter has repented of the allegations. He sought forgiveness, reconciliation and counseling."
Vitter's office said it is not surprising that people he employed would also do work for Louisiana Family Forum, which shares his philosophical outlook. He said the education earmark was meant to offer a broad array of views in the public schools.
"This program helps supplement and support educators and school systems that would like to offer all of the explanations in the study of controversial science topics such as global warming and the life sciences," Vitter said in a written statement.
The money in the earmark will pay for a report suggesting "improvements" in science education in Louisiana, the development and distribution of educational materials and an evaluation of the effectiveness of the Ouachita Parish School Board's 2006 policy that opened the door to biblically inspired teachings in science classes.
"I believe it is an important program," Vitter said.
Critics said taxpayer money should not go to support a religion-based program.
"This is a misappropriation of public funds," said Charles Kincade, a civil rights lawyer in Monroe who has been involved in church-state cases. "It's a backdoor attempt to push a religious agenda in the public school system."
Group has history
Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a Christian conservative defeated for reelection in 2004, attempted to open the door for such money when he inserted language into a report accompanying the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act enabling teachers to offer "the full range of scientific views" when "topics that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution)" are taught.
In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a Louisiana law that would have required schools to teach creationist theories, which hold that God created the universe, whenever evolution was taught. In 2002, the Louisiana Family Forum unsuccessfully sought to persuade the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to insert a five-paragraph disclaimer in all of its science texts challenging the natural science view that life came about by accident and has evolved through the process of natural selection.
The group notched a victory last year when the Ouachita School Board adopted a policy that, without mentioning the Bible or creationism, gave teachers leeway to introduce other views besides those contained in traditional science texts.
"Many of our educators feel inadequate to address the controversies," said Mills, executive director of the Louisiana Family Forum.
Mills said that his group didn't request the money in the 2008 appropriations bill, and that Vitter's proposal "was a bit of a surprise."
Mills said his group is not attempting to push the teaching of evolution out of the schools, but wants to supplement it. Yet, some of the material posted on the Louisiana Family Forum's Web site suggests a more radical view.
Among other things, a "Louisiana Family Forum Fact Sheet" at one point included "A Battle Plan -- Practical Steps to Combat Evolution" by Kent Hovind, a controversial evangelist who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for tax offenses and obstruction of justice.
Hovind's paper stated, "Evolution is not a harmless theory but a dangerous religious belief" that underpinned the atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
Looking deeper urged
"I've got so much stuff on the Web site I don't know what's there," Mills said. "We think that in order to teach controversial topics successfully, you have to teach both sides."
The group's "Evolution Addendum for Public Schools," also posted on the Web site, offers a flavor of its concerns. The document rejects the evolutionary connection between apes and humans, questions the standard explanation of fossil formation and seeks to undercut the prevailing scientific view that life emerged from a series of chemical reactions.
"Under ideal conditions, the odds of that many amino acids coming together in the right order are approximately the same as winning the Power Ball Lotto every week for the next 640 years," it states. "How could this have happened accidentally?"
Kincade, the Monroe lawyer, said Vitter's and Louisiana Family Forum's motives are not benign.
"What you have to do is look below the surface," said Kincade, who holds an undergraduate degree in physics and has been active in legal cases in which religious groups challenge science instruction. "It frames the issue in a way that appeals to America's sense of fair play. The problem is, except for fringe people, evolution is an accepted fact of science. It is not a hotly contested issue. The general concept of natural selection and evolution is settled and beyond dispute. To suggest otherwise is misleading. They are trying to backdoor creationism."
Vitter's appropriation was contained in a database compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit group seeking to reduce the number of earmarks in federal legislation. Earlier this year, Congress agreed for the first time to begin linking specially requested earmarks to the names of their sponsors. Taxpayers for Common Sense has compiled thousands of them into searchable databases.
Vitter said the financing request was submitted earlier this year and "was evaluated on its merit." But Steve Ellis, of the taxpayers' group, said most earmarks are not vetted by anyone except the member requesting it.
"Using an earmark to dictate that the Louisiana Family Forum receive the funding to develop a science education program ironically ignores a hallmark of scientific research, making decisions on the basis of competitive, empirical research," Ellis said.
The appropriations bill is awaiting Senate action.